One of my classes during the fall semester was on discipleship and evangelism. I confess I wasn’t thrilled about the class, since I had previously read a number of the books and both were topics that had frequently been addressed in Sunday school classes and seminars I had attended. But the personal interaction and assignments made it very helpful, and reading Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” greatly influenced my view of what it means to be a disciple.
If a disciple is “one who accepts and assists in the spreading the doctrines of another,” then discipleship would be the lifestyle of a disciple and teaching others how to be a follower of a certain other. In the case of Christianity, this would mean discipleship is a lifestyle of following the teaching of Jesus, and thus become like Him, even as we teach others to do the same. Being a disciple of Christ isn’t simply reciting a creed; this would not require trust in the leader (Coleman, 51-52). Jesus “did not urge his disciples to commit their lives to a doctrine, but to a person who was the doctrine” (Coleman, 56). Thus, true discipleship requires of the disciple “absolute obedience to the Master’s will, even as it meant complete abandonment of their own” (Coleman, 59). Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoes this idea when he says, “Discipleship betokened the separation of the disciples from all their old ties, and an exclusive adherence to Jesus Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 203). This means that the Christian “belongs to Christ alone, and his relationship with the world is mediated through Him” (Bonhoeffer, 257). That is what it means to be a disciple.
Discipleship, then, would be living out this abandonment to Christ in one’s own life and teaching others to do the same. Despite popular opinion, this is not primarily done through large events and formalized programs. Coleman writes, “One cannot transform the world except as individuals in the world are transformed, and individuals cannot be changed except as they are molded in the hands of the Master” (Coleman, 30). The best model for discipleship is Jesus’ own: “life-schooling” a select few “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up,” (Deut. 6:7). This means bringing others to see the Father and thus become more like Him, through prayer, life in the church, and the study and application of scripture to personal life, instilling in them a greater love and worship of God that allows them to turn from all earthly ties and be bound to Christ alone” (Bonhoeffer, 68). Just as following Christ in your own life requires great cost, so making disciples is also costly. This cost is not that we are purchasing our discipleship, but proving the worth of the One we follow by abandoning our own will for His. But the cost is worth it, and near the end of his book Bonhoeffer offers encouragement:
“The goal is to become ‘as Christ.’ Christ’s followers always have his image before their eyes, and in its light all other images are screened from their sight. It penetrates into the depths of their being, fills them, and makes them more and more like their Master. The image of Jesus Christ impresses itself in daily communion on the image of the disciple. No follower of Jesus can contemplate his image in a spirit of cold detachment. That image has the power to transform our lives, and if we surrender ourselves utterly to him, we cannot help bearing his image ourselves. We become the sons of God, we stand side by side with Christ, our unseen Brother, bearing like him the image of God.” (Bonhoeffer, 337)
“Because He really lives his life in us, we too can… it is only because he became like us that we can become like him. It is only because we are identified with him that we can become like him. By being transformed into his image, we are enabled to model our lives on his. Now at least deeds are performed and life is lived in single-minded discipleship in the image of Christ and his words find unquestioning obedience. We pay no attention to our own lives or the new image which we bear, for then we should at once have forfeited it, since it is only to serve as a mirror for the image of Christ on whom our gaze is fixed. The disciple looks solely at his Master. But when a man follows Jesus Christ and bears the image of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord, when he has become the image of God, we may at last say that he has been called to be the ‘imitator of God.’ The follower of Jesus is the imitator of God.” (Bonhoeffer, 344)
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, The Macmillan Company, USA, 1969
Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Evangelism, Fleming H. Revell, Grand Rapids, MI. 1993.
Note on Bonhoeffer: he has much good to offer in The Cost of Discipleship, despite being not fully orthodox in his theology. There is a sense of this in Cost of Discipleship but there were only a few times I could actually put my finger on something that was off.